Thursday, March 23, 2000

Ohio farmers face dry summer

Wet winter hasn't made up for drought

The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Associated Press

        While most Ohio farmers are facing another summer drought, recent rains may have given southwest Ohio farmers a reprieve.

        Precipitation amounts for southwestern Ohio are 31/2 inches above normal for the year, according to the National Weather Service, but the area still needs 2-5 inches of rain to make up for last year's lack of precipitation.

        “What this means is that it needs to keep raining,” said Brian Coniglio, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington. “If it doesn't rain for a few weeks, we will be in a drought again.”

        Fred Dailey, director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, cautioned farmers from taking comfort in last weekend's steady rains, which pushed precipitation levels in southwest and southeast Ohio above normal levels for the year.

        He's urging farmers to take precautions such as crop insurance in case a lack of rain prevents crops from thriving. “I think we have to avoid a false sense of complacency,” he said.

        Even if there's a heavy downpour and consequent floods, the ground can only absorb about an inch, said Kim Kinman, executive director for the Farm Service Agency serving Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties.

        March, he said, generally is when tractors and livestock go into the fields and risk sinking up to a foot into the wet ground. Not this year, he said.

        The ground is so dry in Northern Kentucky that there's no sinking in sight. That doesn't bode well for the planting season, which starts in mid-April in Northern Kentucky.

        “Any rain will bring the crop up,” he said. “It'll just show stress. It still hurts yield at the end” of the season.

        Mr. Kinman has special concerns about the clay under the topsoil. It's as dry as a bone. Last year, there was enough rain to get the clay moist and keep drought damages to a minimum.

        There is enough moisture in the soil for farmers to plant corn, soybeans and other crops in the coming weeks, but that doesn't mean the water will remain throughout the growing season, said Jim Ramey, a statistician with the Ohio Agriculture Statistics Service.

        “Right now if they had to go out and plant the crops today, they would probably get them in. ... It's another thing to grow it out and bring it to harvest,” Mr. Ramey said Wednesday following a meeting of the Drought Executive Committee.

        The Legislature created the committee after a 1988 drought as a way for state agencies, scientists and others to share information and make recommendations to the governor.

        Although it currently is not as severe, the drought that hurt water levels, crops and livestock last year remains, with the northwest and west-central parts of Ohio the worst off, said Julie Dian-Reed, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Wilmington.

        She told the group that forecasts from April to June predict below-normal precipitation, which would not be enough to recover from last year's shortfalls. Parts of the state are still about 10 inches of precipitation below normal.

        “We need a pretty wet spring, and right now it's not looking like that's going to happen,” she said.

        Mr. Ramey said beginning next week his agency will begin a survey asking farmers how much moisture there is in the soil.

        He's worried that northwest and west-central Ohio, where a good portion of the state's farmers reside, have the worst prospects for recovery because forecasts for rain are below normal.

        “That's our greenbelt,” he said.

        Joe Cornely, spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau, said farmers across the state are worried they could lose a majority of their income for a second consecutive year.

        “While we're starting to see some of the moisture be replenished, we still have a lot to go,” he said. “There are a lot of farmers that are very nervous about the kind of the weather Ohio is going to get this year.”

        Jim Hannah and Susan Vela contributed to this report.


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